A captivating look at a singular American figure and the tumultuous history he helped fashion.

TR'S LAST WAR

THEODORE ROOSEVELT, THE GREAT WAR, AND A JOURNEY OF TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY

A historical account examines Theodore Roosevelt’s quest to prepare the United States for its entry into World War I.

In 1915, the British ocean liner the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat while making its way from New York to Liverpool, killing nearly 1,200 passengers. Roosevelt was enraged by this act of naval aggression and equally furious by what he considered President Woodrow Wilson’s pusillanimous response to it. Roosevelt became obsessed with preparing the nation for war, though the country had neither the men nor the supplies—and perhaps not the funds—for a protracted foreign engagement. Wilson opposed him bitterly and staked his presidency on the attractive combination of peace and prosperity. Roosevelt seriously contemplated a bid for the presidency in 1916, but the GOP was deeply distrustful of him as well as resentful given the way his failed third party bid in 1912 essentially ushered Wilson into office. Pietrusza (1960, 2018, etc.) powerfully captures Roosevelt’s frustration: “He wanted the presidency, craved vindication, fairly lusted for a chance to crush Woodrow Wilson and all his old enemies. But he knew that for all his heroism, he lacked public support, and that fatal defect preyed upon him.” The author provides a remarkably detailed account of the 1916 election and Roosevelt’s indefatigable push for military readiness as well as the emotional toll the war took on him—all four of his sons fought in it, and one lost his life. Pietrusza’s research is magisterially rigorous, swinging expertly from microscopic details to a vivid drawing of a more general tableau. The fulcrum of the book is Roosevelt’s capacious character: his near-comical obsession with the trumpeting of manly virtue, his thunderous economic populism, and his great sensitivity to loss—he had a “significant suicidal streak”—all somehow contained within one man. The author memorably contrasts the former president with Wilson, a man Roosevelt came to deeply loathe, a patrician academic who longed to disentangle the nation from Europe’s savage intramural disputes. Pietrusza clearly harbors an admiration for his subject but avoids any fawning hagiography, though one could argue his depiction of Wilson could be more generous. Further, the author adeptly tracks the transformation of the country’s mood, which gradually moved closer to Roosevelt’s sentiments: disdainful of Wilson’s intrusive foreign policy in the Americas but dispassionately neutral when it came to Europe. Pietrusza’s prose is sharply buoyant and transparent, and the story unfolds almost in novelistic fashion, presented as an electric contest of dominating wills rather than a dry recitation of historical facts. And while the author’s treatment focuses on the run-up to the war, he manages to paint a comprehensive view of Roosevelt’s life and the “sheer bloodlust” of which he was formidably capable. This is a fine scholarly achievement: psychologically searching, scrupulously devoted to accuracy, and dramatically gripping.

A captivating look at a singular American figure and the tumultuous history he helped fashion.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4930-2887-0

Page Count: 424

Publisher: Lyons Press

Review Posted Online: Nov. 8, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2019

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The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics,...

HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE

A provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the fall of other democracies.

Following the last presidential election, Levitsky (Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America, 2003, etc.) and Ziblatt (Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, 2017, etc.), both professors of government at Harvard, wrote an op-ed column titled, “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” The answer here is a resounding yes, though, as in that column, the authors underscore their belief that the crisis extends well beyond the power won by an outsider whom they consider a demagogue and a liar. “Donald Trump may have accelerated the process, but he didn’t cause it,” they write of the politics-as-warfare mentality. “The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture.” The authors fault the Republican establishment for failing to stand up to Trump, even if that meant electing his opponent, and they seem almost wistfully nostalgic for the days when power brokers in smoke-filled rooms kept candidacies restricted to a club whose members knew how to play by the rules. Those supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders might take as much issue with their prescriptions as Trump followers will. However, the comparisons they draw to how democratic populism paved the way toward tyranny in Peru, Venezuela, Chile, and elsewhere are chilling. Among the warning signs they highlight are the Republican Senate’s refusal to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee as well as Trump’s demonization of political opponents, minorities, and the media. As disturbing as they find the dismantling of Democratic safeguards, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that “a broad opposition coalition would have important benefits,” though such a coalition would strike some as a move to the center, a return to politics as usual, and even a pragmatic betrayal of principles.

The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics, rather than in the consensus it is not likely to build.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6293-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2017

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Harari delivers yet another tour de force.

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21 LESSONS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY

A highly instructive exploration of “current affairs and…the immediate future of human societies.”

Having produced an international bestseller about human origins (Sapiens, 2015, etc.) and avoided the sophomore jinx writing about our destiny (Homo Deus, 2017), Harari (History/Hebrew Univ. of Jerusalem) proves that he has not lost his touch, casting a brilliantly insightful eye on today’s myriad crises, from Trump to terrorism, Brexit to big data. As the author emphasizes, “humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers, or equations, and the simpler the story, the better. Every person, group, and nation has its own tales and myths.” Three grand stories once predicted the future. World War II eliminated the fascist story but stimulated communism for a few decades until its collapse. The liberal story—think democracy, free markets, and globalism—reigned supreme for a decade until the 20th-century nasties—dictators, populists, and nationalists—came back in style. They promote jingoism over international cooperation, vilify the opposition, demonize immigrants and rival nations, and then win elections. “A bit like the Soviet elites in the 1980s,” writes Harari, “liberals don’t understand how history deviates from its preordained course, and they lack an alternative prism through which to interpret reality.” The author certainly understands, and in 21 painfully astute essays, he delivers his take on where our increasingly “post-truth” world is headed. Human ingenuity, which enables us to control the outside world, may soon re-engineer our insides, extend life, and guide our thoughts. Science-fiction movies get the future wrong, if only because they have happy endings. Most readers will find Harari’s narrative deliciously reasonable, including his explanation of the stories (not actually true but rational) of those who elect dictators, populists, and nationalists. His remedies for wildly disruptive technology (biotech, infotech) and its consequences (climate change, mass unemployment) ring true, provided nations act with more good sense than they have shown throughout history.

Harari delivers yet another tour de force.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-51217-2

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: June 27, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

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